"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for August, 2012

You can’t make this stuff up: Harvard Edition

From the pages of The Harvard Crimson comes this note about a mass cheating scandal.  It seems that more than a hundred students are being investigated for serious allegations of copying and plagiarism on their final exam.  The class in question: Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress”.

Now where could someone immersed in the study of Congress possibly get the idea of sleaziness and dishonesty?

Rewriting Lance Armstrong

The verdict is in: Lance Armstrong will be officially stripped of his seven titles in the Tour de France after he ceased contesting an official investigation into allegations of steroid use.  This comes a month after the NCAA imposed sanctions on the Penn State football program including voiding 112 official victories.  Cases of this sort with a lower profile are growing more common as well.  It now seems to be a rule that if an athlete does something that people severely dislike, he’ll be punished by rewriting his record.

Does this make sense?  Obviously not.  Record books exist to tell the truth.  Penn State did win those football games.  Lance Armstrong did complete the Tour de France in the shortest amount of time during those seven years.  The record books should report what actually happened, not what we wish had happened.  In that sense, these instances of rewriting are examples of a disturbing trend.

History of all sorts should be truthful.  Much of our history these days is constantly rewritten to fit with prevailing sentiments.  Truth is now fungible.  There’s no virtue in actually telling it like it is.  Instead the facts get adjusted to meet the emotional desires of the times.  Does anyone doubt that this is happening in many areas far beyond sports?  Does anyone question that history books now contain a fair amount of fiction and half-truths put in to appease various interest groups?  That museums and other historical gatekeepers are careful to bend historical truth a bit in certain situations?

What I’m Reading: The Population Bomb

There are for more books than there are movies, TV shows, or computer games.   In one way this is a good thing, since it gives us readers more choices.  On the other hand, since the number of books is in the millions, making the choices can be difficult.  In a lifetime each of us can read at best a few thousand books.  That means millions will be left out.  How do we pick?

I’ll narrow the question slightly by leaving out recent books and focus only on classics.  Even there we face a choice among millions of books, stretching from a few years old to the dawn of human history.  Which ones should we read?  How do we decide which books are good ones?

An old book is good if it’s been vindicated.   In that respect, my homeboy G. K. Chesterton wrote a lot of good books, because the things he said are now agreed to be true.  Eugenics is actually evil, as he said in Eugenics and Other Evils.  Christianity has lasted, as he predicted in The Everlasting Man.   It’s fun to see the man predicting things which were in his future but our past.  The successful fulfillment of his prophecies also demonstrates his wisdom and clarity of thought.

On the other hand, it can sometimes be entertaining to read a book that was not vindicated, especially one that failed in spectacular fashion.  Which brings us to today’s entry, The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich.

This book, written in 1968, is most famous for its opening sentences: “The battle to feed humanity is over.  In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”  This prediction did not come true.  The 1970’s are over—thankfully—and hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death—again thankfully.  Few people today know or care what’s in the rest of the book.  They should.  It’s highly entertaining.

For example, the final chapter, entitled “What can you do?”, presents suggestions for individuals to take to combat overpopulation.  One suggested tactic is, “Proselytizing Friends and Associates”.  That section begins as follows:

At no small risk of being considered a nut, you can do a lot of good by persuading your personal acquaintances that the crisis is here, that something must be done, and that they can help.

Yeah, I think anyone who started lecturing friends about the dangers of overpopulation would be considered a nut.  In that sense, Ehrlich did make one correct prediction.  And then there’s this recommendation for talking to college professors:

The population crisis must be an integral part of his teaching—it is pertinent to every subject.  He must use the prestige of his position in writing letters to whomever he thinks he can influence most.  If he is in English or drama, he may be able to write novels or plays emphasizing near-future worlds in which famines or plagues are changing the very nature of society.  If he is in business school, he can “hit the road” lecturing to businesses on “The Stork as an Enemy of Capitalism.” … Any professor, lecturing anywhere, can insert into his lecture a “commercial” on the problem.  “And so I come to the end of my discussion of the literary significance of Darwin’s hangnail.  In conclusion, I would like to remind you that our Society for the Study of Darwin’s Hangnail can only exist in a world in which there is leisure time for intellectual pursuits.  Unless something is done now to bring the runaway human population under control, the SSDH will not long endure.”

Yes, Ehrlich did write this stuff.  Seriously.  If you don’t believe me, buy a copy of the book and read it for yourself.   He wrote it and millions of people, many of whom were educated and intelligent, took it seriously.

Unfortunately the book contains some ideas that aren’t quite so funny.  First of all, there’s this recommendation: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”  So much for freedom.   Elsewhere this:

 The reproductive function of sex must be shown as just one of its functions, and one that must be carefully regulated in relation to the needs of the individual and society. … With a rational atmosphere mankind should be able to work out the problems of de-emphasizing the reproductive role of sex.  These problems include finding substitutes for the sexual satisfaction which many women derive from childbearing … If we take the proper steps in education, legislation, and research, we should be able in a generation to have a population thoroughly enjoying its sexual activity, relatively free of the horrors created today by divorce, illegal abortion, venereal disease, and the psychological pressures of a sexually repressive and repressed society.

Quite a lot of bad stuff here.  Ehrlich calls for government to muck around in people’s private, sexual decisions.  He calls for us to teach children dishonest things about sex.  He implies that women are unable to understand or control their own sexual desires.  And he predicts that as soon as we rid ourselves of the boogeyman called “sexual repression”, STDs, divorce, and abortion will vanish.  Needless to say, he was wrong.  Society has dropped almost all traditional views of sex and we now let everyone do as they will, but divorce and abortion and STDs were still with us when I last checked.

Lastly Ehrlich offers prescriptions for international policy.  Here’s where he gets truly ugly.  He argues for a system of triage in distributing food aid.  Some third-world countries, in his view, are well off enough that they don’t need aid.  Some are deserving of our aid.  And some are just so overpopulated that there’s no point in giving them aid, so we should just cut off the food and leave them to starve.  Don’t take my word for it; read what Ehrlich says: “Finally there is the last tragic category—those countries that are so far behind in the population-food game that there is no hope that our food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency.  India is probably in this category.  If it is, then under the triage system she should receive no more food.”  So there you have it is so many words.   Ehrlich recommend cutting off food aid to India, which would have resulted in the deaths of many millions.  Fortunately our government did not implement his recommendation.

(One final note: Ehrlich’s example of a good third-world country was Libya, the same Libya that was ruled by the murderous Gaddafi for decades.)

One thing that very few people know about this book is that it was published by the Sierra Club.  Wait, you might ask, the Sierra Club promoted sterilization by force, misogyny, and the unnecessary starvation of millions of people?  It sure did.  I am not an enemy of the Sierra Club.  I consider myself an environmentalist and I strongly support the goal of preserving nature and reducing pollution.  But this book stands as a testament to the need for intelligence and skepticism when someone makes a claim of impending doom.

Chesterton on Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit stands in Dickens’s life chiefly as a signal of how far he went down the road of realism, of sadness, and of what is called modernity. True, it was by no means the best of the books of his later period; some even think it the worst. Great Expectations is certainly the best of the later novels; some even think it the best of all the novels. Nor is it the novel most concerned with strictly recent problems; that title must be given to Hard Times. Nor again is it the most finely finished or well constructed of the later books; that claim can be probably made for Edwin Drood. By a queer verbal paradox the most carefully finished of his later tales is the tale that is not finished at all. In form, indeed, the book bears a superficial resemblance to those earlier works by which the young Dickens had set the whole world laughing long ago. Much of the story refers to a remote time early in the nineteenth century; much of it was actually recalled and copied from the life of Dickens’s father in the old Marshalsea prison. Also the narrative has something of the form, or rather absence of form, which belonged to Nicholas Nickleby or Martin Chuzzlewit. It has something of the old air of being a string of disconnected adventures, like a boy’s book about bears and Indians. The Dorrits go wandering for no particular reason on the Continent of Europe, just as young Martin Chuzzlewit went wandering for no particular reason on the continent of America. The story of Little Dorrit stops and lingers at the doors of the Circumlocution Office much in the same way that the story of Samuel Pickwick stops and lingers in the political excitement of Eatanswill. The villain, Blandois, is a very stagey villain indeed; quite as stagey as Ralph Nickleby or the mysterious Monk. The secret of the dark house of Clennam is a very silly secret; quite as silly as the secret of Ralph Nickleby or the secret of Monk. Yet all these external similarities between Little Dorrit and the earliest books, all this loose, melodramatic quality, only serves to make more obvious and startling the fact that some change has come over the soul of Dickens. Hard Times is harsh; but then Hard Times is a social pamphlet; perhaps it is only harsh as a social pamphlet must be harsh. Bleak House is a little sombre; but then Bleak House is almost a detective story; perhaps it is only sombre in the sense that a detective story must be sombre. A Tale of Two Cities is a tragedy; but then A Tale of Two Cities is a tale of the French Revolution; perhaps it is only a tragedy because the French Revolution was a tragedy. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is dark; but then the mystery of anybody must be dark. In all these other cases of the later books an artistic reason can be given — a reason of theme or of construction for the slight sadness that seems to cling to them. But exactly because Little Dorrit is a mere Dickens novel, it shows that something must somehow have happened to Dickens himself. Even in resuming his old liberty, he cannot resume his old hilarity. He can re-create the anarchy, but not the revelry.

It so happens that this strange difference between the new and the old mode of Dickens can be symbolised and stated in one separate and simple contrast. Dickens’s father had been a prisoner in a debtors prison, and Dickens’s works contain two pictures partly suggested by the personality of that prisoner. Mr. Micawber is one picture of him. Mr. Dorrit is another. This truth is almost incredible, but it is the truth. The joyful Micawber, whose very despair was exultant, and the desolate Dorrit, whose very pride was pitiful, were the same man. The valiant Micawber and the nervous, shaking Dorrit were the same man. The defiant Micawber and the snobbish, essentially obsequious Dorrit were the same man. I do not mean of course that either of the pictures was an exact copy of anybody. The whole Dickens genius consisted of taking hints and turning them into human beings. As he took twenty real persons and turned them into one fictitious person, so he took one real person and turned him into twenty fictitious persons. This quality would suggest one character, that quality would suggest another. But in this case, at any rate, he did take one real person and turn him into two. And what is more, he turned him into two persons who seem to be quite opposite persons. To ordinary readers of Dickens, to say that Micawber and Dorrit had in any sense the same original, will appear unexpected and wild. No conceivable connection between the two would ever have occurred to anybody who had read Dickens with simple and superficial enjoyment, as all good literature ought to be read. It will seem to them just as silly as saying that the Fat Boy and Mr. Alfred Jingle were both copied from the same character. It will seem as insane as saying that the character of Smike and the character of Major Bagstock were both copied from Dickens’s father. Yet it is an unquestionable historical fact that Micawber and Dorrit were both copied from Dickens’s father, in the only sense that any figures in good literature are ever copied from anything or anybody. Dickens did get the main idea of Micawber from his father; and that idea is that a poor man is not conquered by the world. And Dickens did get the main idea of Dorrit from his father; and that idea is that a poor man may be conquered by the world. I shall take the opportunity of discussing, in a moment, which of these ideas is true. Doubtless old John Dickens included both the gay and the sad moral; most men do. My only purpose here is to point out that Dickens drew the gay moral in 1849, and the sad moral in 1857.

 
-G. K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens

What I’m Reading: Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was written by Charles Dickens.  Even if you knew nothing else about the book, you’d probably be able to guess something about the central character.  Little Dorrit–officially named Amy Dorrit–is a young woman, a paragon of goodness, love, and mercy, while surrounded and attacked on all sides by the cruelties of a corrupt, shallow, and greedy society.  Dickens was and still is famous for creating characters like this.  Oliver Twist and Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop are two obvious examples.

But while those two examples are generally viewed as lesser works from the less mature part of Dickens’ career, Little Dorrit is instead characterized as one of his supreme literary works, and indeed as one of the great Victorian novels.  It unfolds against the background of a debtors’ prison, where Amy’s father is held for a debt caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that neither he nor anyone else understands.  Amy is born in prison and spends her first twenty-two years there, passionately devoted to helping her father and everyone else.  Eventually two outsiders, Mr. Pancks and Aruthr Clennham, unravel the facts and find that the Dorrit family actually have an enormous fortune.  They leave the prison in triumph.

For the early Dickens, that would have been the end of the story.  For the mature Dickens, it’s the halfway point of the story.  After they leave prison, the Dorrits embark on a trip across Europe.  As they go, Mr. Dorrit’s character subtlely changes.  He becomes obsessed with the concept of being a gentleman, including such gentlemanly pursuits as abusing the servants and harshly judging anyone poorer than himself.  He also becomes determined to remake Amy and her sister as members of the upper class.  To that end, he hires a strict governess named “Mrs. General”, and together they try to twist Amy into the ‘proper’ mold.  The irony is self-evident.  When Amy lived in prison with her father, she was free to pursue genuine goodness and love.  Once the family is free and out of prison, she is boxed in by society on every side.

Literary critics have written more about Dickens than any other English author but Shakespeare.  While there’s undoubtedly an enormous amount to discover in the depths of Dickens’ novels, one can get so wrapped up in it as to miss the main points.  The first main point is wealth.  To Dickens, wealth is a corrupting force.  The poor characters tend to be meek and mild, innocent and wholly good.  The world of the wealthy is a world of corruption, pretension, indifference to suffering and general meanness.  Of course one can find characters that buck the trend on either side, but on the whole the pattern holds strongly; Dickens must have viewed it as a central truth of humanity.  The second main point, obvious related, is Christian goodness.  Goodness is recognized by care and generosity, while badness is greedy, stingy, nasty, and self-centered.  In Little Dorrit one of the main villains is Mrs. Clennham, the widowed mother of Arthur, who has spent decades sinking into an Old Testament-fueled Calvinist obsession with sin and punishment.  At the end of the novel she is brought to a climactic meeting with Amy, who shows her the genuine goodness of Christ.  This dramatic clash of personality types, and many others like it, carry Little Dorrit into the highest echelons of literary achievement.

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